Ski Chilton, PhD, renowned health expert, shares his transformative journey and unveils the 4-step CAST process for happiness and health in challenging times through his latest book, There is Another Way to Happiness: The Four Step CAST Process that Will Transform Your Life.
Has the modern world been searching for happiness all wrong? Infection Control Today® (ICT®) asked Floyd H. (Ski) Chilton, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Precision Nutrition & Wellness at the University of Arizona, co-founder, and chief scientific officer at Resonance Pharmaceuticals, and a health expert driven by a passion for Africa and Appalachia.
In this interview, he explains how he came to write his newest book, There is Another Way to Happiness: The Four Step CAST Process that Will Transform Your Life, the 4-step CAST process for happiness and health—challenging the conventional Western formula—and how health care workers can find happiness and why it is important. Explore his insights on overcoming pain, embracing mindfulness, and finding joy in a world ridden with stress and depression.
Ski Chilton, PhD: I started out we started out very humbly. I started out in a house without a bathroom and the Appalachian Mountains. My mother says that we had 1 person in the family who lived in Raleigh who had done very well, and he was a physician. His name was Ski, and she said she named me Ski, hoping I might amount to something. So the jury may still be out on that. [laughs] But that's where the name Ski comes from.
I love my life. It's an adventurous life. It's an extraordinarily passionate life. I fell in love with Africa 25 years ago and really got “messed up,” but in a way that pushed me to go back. The first time I went, it was in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and in the shanty town I was in, there were 40,000 orphans, and I became attached to the orphans and the continent on that trip.
ICT: Do you find that the people of Appalachia are similar in some ways to those of Africa, like the poor people of Africa?
SC: There are very few questions that I have not been asked, but that’s one of them…. I think because… [the people of Appalachia] they are my tribe in one way. I couldn't be more different from them in some other ways, but in the very, very good ways that you're intimating, I certainly do. I resonate with that idea. And maybe that's why Africa feels like home so much for me. I do resonate with the best parts of the people of Appalachia. And unfortunately, they've been plighted, and a lot of really bad things have happened to them. They are losing industries, like agriculture, and losing their factories, but they're still a beautiful people.
ICT: I wonder if that's why you feel so comfortable [in both places]; even though the situations are different, the results are the same. And, yet you fit in.
SC: You're very insightful, and it resonates. For the last 15 years, I've worked with an organization that goes to places where genocides [were taking place], and the first time I went to Darfur, half a million people were being killed, and we were creating a safe [place] where people could run to and hide. I've never seen more death, and I've never seen more joy. And it completely changed me.
ICT: But how did you come to write your book, There is Another Way to Happiness?
SC: My background is, is not in psychological or emotional health. My background is in health health. I’m an expert on inflammation. So that's my day job. I have about 20 MDs and PhDs in my lab and technicians. [The lab has been] funded by the National Institutes of Health for 35 years.
But the answer to your question is, how did I write a book on whether there is another way to happiness or the rewired brain? The answer is pain. Emotional pain. Despite my ability almost to save the world and do unbelievable things in the world, I seemed to be hurting the people I loved the most, or they were hurting me.
I took a year off to study the issue of free will at the Department of Philosophy at Wake Forest [Baptist University School of Medicine] and studied the issue of free will to determine if I had it. That led to [my book] The Rewired Brain and the impact of our unconscious mind on completely driving us crazy and destroying our lives. [That book has] done very well.
But I had a woman come up to me at a book signing, and she said, “I hate you.” And I said, “Wow, that's strong.” And she said, “You told me in no uncertain terms why I was so messed up. You explained it beautifully, but you didn't provide a solution.”
There couldn't have been a basic scientist, biochemist, or geneticist who poo-pooed mindfulness more than [I did]. [Yet,] the next 6 years were a mindfulness journey…initially 3 years through meditation, mindfulness, and discovery.
Then 4 years ago, I brought 2 Arabian [horses] out here to Tucson, [Arizona], and I rescued them. One had not been trained, and it was a 5-year-old male recently gelded [who] had not been [trained at all]. One Sunday afternoon, it broke my pelvis in half and tried to kill me. The doctors said I would never walk again. They said I would never have a quality of life.
I got to spend the next 6 months in a wheelchair in front of a tree I call “Divine Presence" and studied a lot of Buddhist philosophy. The observer became the counselor; the counselor became the healer. The healer became the forgiver. So much of what was wrong with me was being killed by this process emotionally.
ICT: Would you briefly explain the traditional Western formula for happiness? And why do you believe it doesn't work for most people, particularly infection prevention and other health care workers?
SC: I don't think it was meant to work. Why don't I think it works?
First of all, what is it? According to a recent Harris Poll, two-thirds of Americans are not happy or unhappy. And if you talk to millennials, three-fourths of millennials believe they have to make greater than $500,000 before they can be happy. We're sitting in a time where we've been given this formula for happiness, this formula [that] if you are successful, if you make more money, got a bigger house, if you can outcompete your colleagues, then you can accomplish great things, [and] you will be happy.
I don't know anyone more successful than [I am]. I have a 52-page [curriculum vitae]. I've done everything. Much of that came out not only from Appalachia but also from being severely dyslexic [in] Appalachia. Being put in a [pejorative] trailer—when it was called a [pejorative] trailer—and not being able to read coming out of high school.
[This book] came out this feeling of unworthiness, this feeling of shame. This feeling of rejection is a great thing to drive a successful career. It's a horrible thing to drive a happy career…. Everything I've done is out of this incredible fear of failure and to not get put back in the [pejorative] trailer.
There's no mountain high enough that you can climb, and there's not a bigger one coming [that can be enough]. This way that we're living can never be enough; we can never have enough.
We have these 60, 70-million-year-old lizard squirrel brains that are designed for one thing, and that's to pass our genes on to the next generation and their unconscious minds. They're designed to remember every threat that's happened to you, everything in your past, every way that you've been hurt, to take out competitors; they've been taught to focus on the future because you're going to live to be 25 [years old]. That's it; that unconscious brain could have never, ever anticipated an 80 or a 90-year-old life.
So, 95% of the neuronal activity in our brain comes from our unconscious minds. And they're driving us crazy, and they're fed into by Western society. Their ideas of success and, again, let's beat the next person. Let’s skip to the next mountain; we must be the most successful, the richest, so that we can find the best mate. They're very, very sophisticated ideas that are really manifesting themselves in a 60- to 70-million-year-old brain, unconscious mind.
ICT: How do you introduce the 4-step cast process?
SC: One of the things that I'm pretty good at is creativity and producing framework. So, as I entered the mindfulness field, it was it was coming from someone organized, not unorganized. But it comes from a difficult place. What I began to do is begin to understand it in a contextual framework. What I understood was [that] there were 4 steps that allowed me to do this.
The first one is the one that you and I have been talking about, which is that CAST is awakening consciousness, and there are 2 yous in you. There is something that's going on in you constantly that is just on and on.
If we're going through a bad period, it's ruminating, and it's all coming from our unconscious mind…. We have to be able to understand that there are 2 minds in one head, and 1 of them is unconscious; we have no idea what they're saying. But we sure feel what they're saying. And so our feelings, our emotions, and our reactions are coming from there. Most people don't understand that there’s another part of us that can watch that, that can be curious about that and ask questions: Why do I keep doing that? Why do I keep having the same thoughts? That, by its definition, is mindfulness.
So the C is awakening to consciousness, the conscious part of you, and its ability to wake up and monitor the unconscious you.
The A part of CAST is there are some really bad things that have happened in many of our lives. I've mentioned a couple of mine. There are some things that have happened to us that are devastating. Now, these have been suppressed largely, but they're still there. They're in the unconscious mind creating devastation. So the A part in enhancing awareness is where we're bringing those forward. We don't live there, but they have to come out. It's called Shadow Work in mindfulness circles, but they must come out. Once they're acknowledged, they lose their power. So, the chapters in the A part are enhancing awareness.
The S part is the art of surrender. Once we have had these things happen to us or even in everyday life, we feel we must control our environment. Because of the past, we've got to control our future. Happiness is not possible. Freedom is not possible. Happiness equates to freedom. Freedom equates to giving up control. Letting go and surrender is the third step of the process. Now, that can be surrendering some of those horrible things that have happened. But primarily surrendering control.
The T part of CAST is trust. We can surrender every day. it is putting us in a river that flows into a beautiful sea. And we're not going to resist the river; we're not going to get out of the river and look down, and we're not going to put rocks in our pocket and go down the bottom of the river. Class 5 rapid coming, we're just going to keep our feet up. And we're going to go through the rapid because it's the trust that we are where we are, and we are where we need to be. We are where we were meant to be.
ICT: What advice or insights do you have for health care workers, specifically infection prevention personnel?
SC: There are a couple of things I think everyone in the new year focuses on [like] getting healthy, getting into the gym, and then 3 months later, everyone leaves the gym. I think there's a reason for that. I don't think we can be healthy unless we're happy.
There’s an underlying molecular mechanism to that. We know that the stress response primarily through the HPA axis, and the sympathetic nervous system increases cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol and adrenaline initially shut down the immune system and suppress the immune system and pro-inflammatory cytokines, and that makes us much more susceptible to disease at first.
If we continue in a stress HPA cycle, chronic stress then flips the switch and moves to chronic inflammation. So, it's no longer the suppressed immune system, but it's an overactive immune system. It, then, leads to all the things that chronic stress can lead to pro-inflammatory cytokines, shifting the balance of immune cells. All that leads to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and certain cancers.
ICT: What do you think is driving the depression? I mean, it just seems like it's an epidemic.
SC: It's the whole “there is another way.” The thing that's driving the depression is we're seeking things that we believe will bring us happiness. And with each thing that we accomplish, if we're accomplishing it, there's only a bigger mountain in front of us, and we get exhausted. In Western society, we're exhausted.
There is a certain point that then I think pain is a good thing. It's a little bit like dyslexia when a parent comes up to me and says, “Oh my God, my kid has dyslexia or is dyslexic.” [I said,] “Congratulations. There's another gift in there."
But that the pain is the same thing. We either succumb to it, or it moves us forward, and it moves us to search for another way. And I think that's why this book is so important: what is the other way?
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)